I felt like there was a pattern developing: first, my nightmare woke me up at the hospital, then Sterling jarred me awake with the alarm, and now, Whitney nearly blew out my eardrums.
“Ah, Jesus- wh- what the hell?” I mumbled after nearly jumping out of my seat. If it wasn’t for the straps, keeping me tied down, I’d be sprawled out on the floor.
“Ha, sorry, but you sleep like a brick,” Whitney said, black smoke still rising off her hands.
“Have we landed?” I asked, letting out a groan.
“Yep,” Corey said as he walked past with his bags. “And you managed to sleep the entire flight. You’re going to have to teach me that one.”
I guess I was more tired than I thought. Was it still because of what Asclepius did to fix me? With everything that had happened, it was hard to believe that was only two days ago. That means it was… Tuesday, wow.
“Okay, so I guess we should get to work.”
“Well, slight problem with that,” Whitney said. “It’s basically midnight and we’re starving, and we haven’t showered since Switzerland, and Argus doesn’t want to send out agents until the morning.”
“Time zones are a bitch,” Corey said, walking down the ramp.
I grabbed my bag off the floor and hurried to catch up with the others.
“You lived around here, right? Do you know somewhere we can get some food?” Whitney asked as we walked away from the Argus landing area built next to O’Hare.
“And a place to stay. Argus hasn’t finished setting up our paychecks yet, so finding a hotel is gonna be fun,” Corey commented.
“Yeah, I live here. I can order us some food and you guys can crash at my place if you want.”
“Really? That’d be awesome!” Whitney said, grinning from ear to ear.
“Sure, I mean, what kind of host would I be If I didn’t offer?” I said with a small grin of my own.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Whitney said as I tried to flag down a taxi.
It felt nice to be able to offer something to the team, even if it was just a place to lay low for a while. Still, it didn’t do much to ease my guilt.
Traffic wasn’t too bad this late, so we made quick time to my house after stopping to get a mountain of takeout from a little Chinese place that stayed open late. When we made it to my humble abode, I started thinking about sleeping arrangements, not that we would probably be getting much sleep. My internal clock was really out of whack thanks to all the flying. I could see why peopled loved to have a teleporter on their team.
My thoughts were interrupted when I saw the damage to the front door that still wasn’t fixed. Right, I never did get a chance to clean up the mess the Gold Diggers made.
“Sorry about the mess,” I said as I threw my shoulder into the door to force it open.
“What happened here?” Whitney asked. Her eyes darted between the four sets of holes where the deer man had pinned me to my living room wall. Luckily, someone had carted off the remains of his thorn growths, or maybe they just evaporated on their own. Who knows?
“The Gold Diggers broke in and busted me up pretty good for running into them when they attacked the city.”
“Wait, you fought the Gold Diggers!?” Whitney asked in surprise as she sat down the food on the coffee table I flipped over so it was standing upright. I guess it was knocked over during the scuffle.
“I wouldn’t say ‘fought’. More like they kicked my ass,” I said, trying to play it down.
“And you got away in one piece?” Corey asked, finally taking his jacket off.
“Not exactly,” I said, suddenly feeling my hand and shoulder twinge. “Cypher had Asclepius patch me up.”
“You know Cypher!?” Corey asked, his eyes widening.
“That’s so cool!” Whitney said, getting excited.
“He broke into my house,” I said with a shrug. “And he’s the one that got me sanctioned.”
“How are you not making a big deal out of this?” Whitney asked, grabbing a carton and sitting down on an armchair.
Corey and I grabbed some of the food ourselves. Corey slid a footrest away from the armchair and sat down so he could stretch out his wings behind him.
“I don’t know, Cypher is… well, he’s an asshole. Not really someone to look up to, I guess.”
“Are you kidding? He’s the best hero in the world!” Whitney said.
“Doesn’t mean I have to like the guy.”
Whitney shrugged and dug into her food.
“What about you guys?” I asked. “How long have you two been in ‘the business’?”
“I guess not really much longer than you. We were both sanctioned last year when we graduated from the Academy,” Corey said.
“You both went to the Academy?” I asked. I didn’t know much about the school, just that it was a private training program for young metahumans.
“Yeah, it was pretty fun. Corey and I became friends and were put on a bunch of training exercises together. Airborne artillery is surprisingly effective.” She said with a grin.
“What can you make explode?” I asked, finding myself curious about their powers again.
“Pretty much anything I can touch,” She said, picking out a grain of rice from her carton and holding it between her fingers. It glowed and suddenly vanished with a small pop and puff of smoke.
“What about people?”
“I don’t know, and I really don’t want to try. My powers are dangerous enough without me having to think about accidentally blowing people up when I shake their hands.”
I could understand that.
“What about you, Corey? I thought I saw you blocking a sword with your wings?”
Corey nodded. “Yeah, you saw me training with Shogun. I can move them like extra limbs and turn the feathers harder and sharper than steel.”
To demonstrate, he picked up an unopened pack of chopsticks and held them at an arm’s length. He curled one of his wings around and I noticed that the color seemed to shift ever so slightly, and the feathers looked like they suddenly had a faint metallic sheen. Corey sliced down with his wing, easily cutting through the wooden utensils.
“They’re bulletproof from what I can tell, but I can’t really fly with them like this.”
“That’s still really cool,” I said.
“Says the guy who can see the future.”
“Well, I can’t do it very well,” I said, not liking how the conversation turned on me, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess.
“It’s still cool,” Whitney said. “But what else can you do, besides the energy stuff?”
“That’s really it, I mean, I’m stronger, faster, and tougher with the energy; it kind of acts like armor.”
“Can you fly?” Corey asked.
“I don’t think so, but I’ve never really tried,” I said, thinking back to what I’d done to break myself free of The Anarchist’s control the first time. I could jerk the suit and move it around with my mind, but could I use that to defy gravity?
“You totally should, then we could be flying buddies.”
“Wow, way to leave me behind on the ground,” Whitney said in mock offense.
“Last time you tried to use your powers to fly you nearly broke your neck,” Corey said with a laugh.
“Do you know how hard it is to aim explosions?” Whitey said with mischievous smile, pointing a chopstick accusingly at Corey.
“Screw you,” Whitney laughed. “I detonated the ground under my feet and tried to use smaller explosions to sort of aim myself. It didn’t end well,” She explained.
“Don’t your explosions hurt you?”
“Nope! I’m explosion proof!” She declared proudly.
“But not shrapnel proof,” Corey added.
Whitney shrugged, “True. Found that out the hard way when I got cocky around a frag grenade.”
“That one wasn’t pretty,” Corey said, wincing at the thought.
This was honestly nice; to get the chance to talk to other people with powers. They weren’t freaks or zealous heroes, they were just people. I think having my first real exposure to ‘working’ metahumans be the Gold Diggers wasn’t a good introduction.
“Hey, Nate, do you mind if I use your shower? We never got a chance after the training exercise.”
“Uh, yeah, sure. The bathroom is upstairs on the left.”
“Thanks!” She said, scooping up her bag and walking up the stairs.
Corey seemed to pull his wings slightly closer when Whitney left. He seemed like a nice enough guy, kind of quirky, though. I bet some people would find that odd coming from me.
“You want a beer?” I asked, walking towards the kitchen.
“No, but thanks. It’s because of my powers: I get drunk super easy,” he explained apologetically.
“Oh, no problem. How about a soda, or some water…?”
“Water would be great.”
“You can turn on the TV if you want,” I called from the kitchen as I grabbed my drink and a bottle of water for Corey.
“Alright,” he called back.
“Catch,” I called as I tossed him the bottle.
Corey had turned to a national news channel which at this time of night meant it was just reruns of the day’s metahuman stories. Sometimes they would put on more of the less-than-family-friendly news on, especially if there was a major attack from something like the Pantheon.
They were covering a story from a hospital; the same one the Regents took me to. “-Doctors are baffled. More than two hundred patients, including more than fifty stage four cancer patients, were miraculously cured early Saturday morning…”
Wait, that was when I was there, and more importantly, when Asclepius was. He must have gone around and healed everyone after he was done with me. I couldn’t help but grin: he was a softie under that gruff exterior.
“Alright, I think this is the place,” I said, double checking the apartment number with what was written on the Argus file I was holding.
“It’s locked,” Corey said.
The apartment complex wasn’t in the nicest part of town. From the street it nearly looked condemned thanks to broken windows and copious amounts of graffiti. Once we stepped inside, it didn’t get much better. The carpet was stained to hell, and the ceiling was more water damaged than not, and most of the lights were broken and burnt out.
“Ugh, this place reeks, lets just knock. Hard,” Whitney said, gripping the door knob. Glowing lines began to trace themselves across the metal until the entire thing was lit up like a light bulb. “Fire in the hole!”
When she released the handle, the knob exploded in a cloud of smoke, taking a plate-sized chunk of the door with it.
A head emerged from one of the neighboring apartments, looking confused and alarmed. “We’re with Argus,” Corey sighed, flashing his badge.
“I need to get one of those,” I said as we followed Whitney inside.
“They didn’t give you one already?” Corey asked.
“No, I think James said something about it coming in the mail later.”
The apartment was surprisingly clean. Whitney had already disappeared around the corner, giving the place a once-over. “There’s nothing here,” Whitney groaned.
“We haven’t even looked at anything yet.” I said.
“You know, when I heard we were going on a mission, I expected fighting some baddies, or saving some innocent people, not searching empty apartments.”
“All part of the job,” Corey said with a smug grin.
Whitney rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. As I looked around the living room. There wasn’t any art on the walls, and the furniture was old and worn in. I walked over to a bookshelf next to the TV and skimmed over the spines of movies and video games, trying to look for anything out of place.
“Hey, Nate?” Corey called over to me.
“Yeah?” I asked, turning over to see Corey looking out the window.
“I thought you said you saw Millennium Park from the apartment in your vision.”
Shit shit shit… I had to think of an explanation, we were nowhere near the park.
“I did, but like I said, my visions aren’t specific or straightforward. Sometimes I have to… interpret them. So, it was probably just showing me that to point me towards Chicago.”
“Oh, okay. I just wanted to make sure we were where you vision wanted us to be,” He said like he completely bought the lie.
I swallowed my shame and guilt and got back to my stalling investigation. Well, maybe it wouldn’t be. If I could find some way to connect Cooke and Morales to Gencore I might be able to find a lead. The problem was, the apartment was pretty bare. Whitney started riffling through cabinets in the kitchen while Corey looked through opened closed doors to see the rooms inside.
The winged wonder had donned his jacket again, obscuring his upper costume. Unlike the other uniforms like Whitney’s and Erin’s, Corey’s was much lighter in its design but shared the dark colors. I needed to find some way to get some armor myself. The energy I summoned was great, but It couldn’t protect me when it wasn’t there.
“Guys, come look at this,” Corey called out.
“Oh damn,” Whitney said, looking into the room where Corey was.
I walked over to the bathroom that had been closed when we’d arrived. Corey was standing inside, and Whitney was looking in from the hallway.
“What is it?”
“Look at it,” Corey said, not sure how to describe it, and I soon saw why. The walls were scorched in jagged lines like there was a ball of lightning going to town in here. On top of that, there were large scales covering the floor.
“What do you think, is this were their powers manifested?” Corey asked.
“I’d say so. And it looks like Cooke went first,” Whitney said.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Well, there are scorch marks on everything except for the scales, ergo the scales appeared later. That means Morales had to make and shed them once the indoor thunderstorm was over.”
“Wow, nicely done,” I said.
“What? I’m not just a pretty face,” She said with a smile.
“Okay, so we know that they manifested here, but what caused it? I mean, I guess its possible for powers to just ‘pop up’, but it isn’t common. And you heard what James said: these guys were both in their mid-thirties, so the chances of them spontaneously manifesting powers are close to nil,” Whitney said.
“What are those pills laying over there?” I asked, pointing at the aspirin-looking pills scattered on the floor.
Corey bent down and fished something out of the trashcan by the sink. “I think they came from this. Creasomyaline Demevelam. I’ve never heard of it before,” Corey said.
“Look at the logo,” I said, recognizing the helix symbol.
“Gencore?” Whitney asked.
“Yeah… I can’t say I’m very surprised,” Corey said.
There was the link I was looking for. But what now? There wasn’t anything much else to see here.
“What the fuck!”
The three of us whirled to the source of the noise and hurried into the living room. One of the two crooks, Morales, was standing in the doorway. He had been inspecting the new hole in the front door courtesy of Whitney when he heard us coming.
It didn’t take but a fraction of a second for his bones to stretch and shift as large armor-like scales tore through his shirt and jacket and began to cover portions of his skin. The parts the plates didn’t cover became dehydrated and taut, only feeding into the reptile imagery even more.
“You punks are going to pay for breaking into MY house!”
Morales lunged, his fingers now three-inch long hooked claws. Corey struggled to shrug off his coat while Whitney fished around the pouches on her belt for ammo. None of us were prepared or fast enough, and he was coming straight for me. This wasn’t going to be pretty…